An ambitious MBA with a genius for opening her mouth when she shouldn’t, Aurora Jenkins wants nothing more than to fix her accident-prone family so she can leave the suffocating rural culture of her hometown and run back to the big city where she belongs.
Considered an eccentric hermit with no more ambition than to repair the courthouse clock, Clay McCloud has withdrawn to his brother’s South Carolina island home to rethink his wasted corporate life…
This edition published by AWritersWork.com 2010
© 2004 – Patricia Rice
Originally published 2004 by Ivy Books, The Ballantine Publishing Group
I want to thank Angela Shrader, RN, and Joan Kayse for their invaluable medical information. Any errors are entirely my own. They told me so. And thanks to Roxann Fortenberry and the Carolina and Kentucky Romance Writers for opening networks of information. You guys are the best!
And as always, my undying gratitude to Connie Rinehold and Mary Jo Putney for their clear vision and immense patience. Without them, I’d still be chasing the bottle cap under my desk.
“You’re kidding me, right?” Aurora Jenkins glanced at the nearly empty budget file the head of the tourist commission handed her. “You want me to spin gold out of straw, too?”
Shrugging his narrow shoulders at her disparaging words, Terry Talbert retreated to his desk so she didn’t tower over him. “We’re all volunteers here, Rora. We have a million-dollar grant, but no one with your financial expertise.”
No one else had her big mouth and opened it so frequently, she corrected, mentally kicking herself. She’d just been laid off from her lucrative bank position for opening her mouth one too many times. But this time, she’d done it for her family.
She could fix her career easily enough, but she was pinning her family’s future on the state park plan represented by this meager file. Volunteering her time and expertise had seemed the best means of getting on the inside track. Now it looked as if she would have the responsibility of making the park happen. No point endangering this golden opportunity by telling Terry he was a lazy bum.
Shouldering her bag, she slipped the file into it. “I’ll start with land acquisitions. Who’s this Thomas Clayton McCloud? I’ve never heard of him.” This was a small town and she’d grown up here. She thought she knew everyone.
“Some computer guru the mayor’s mother thinks is cute.” Terry grimaced in distaste. “You know how things get done around here. ”
Yep, she did. She’d just landed this position because she’d been Terry’s high school lab partner. Networking, that was called in the city.
“And ‘cute’ will acquire the land how?” she asked. “With charming smiles and asking if we could have the beach, pretty please?”
Terry snorted. “Not from McCloud. He’s a surly bastard. Check him out. He’s usually sitting on the courthouse roof at this hour.”
Oh, good, surly bastards were right up her alley. A good fight to get the old adrenaline going, and she could put an end to the park right now. Keep the big mouth shut, Rora.
“Is it too soon to resign my commission?” Rolling her eyes but not giving back the file, Rory headed for the door. She’d accomplished more impossible feats than persuading budgets out of surly computer gurus who sat on courthouse roofs. Maybe not any quite so colorful though. The sophisticated city life she’d been leading paled in comparison.
“Don’t strangle him until you get the list of landowners out of him!” Terry called after her.
Once she had the list of heirs to that tract, the state could start purchasing land for the park. The sooner the island had a park, the sooner they could bring some tourist money in here to fill her family’s pockets, and she could be on her way again. Maybe she would take a job in Chicago this time. The skyline there was spectacular, and the culture and night life beat Charlotte’s by a country mile. A career move would be good for her.
Walking out of city hall, she nearly bumped into Jeff Spencer, the town banker, conversing with the elderly mayor. They both knew her but didn’t acknowledge her existence. Recognizing the attitude, she shrugged and stepped out of their way. She wasn’t rocking any more boats these days.
Breathing in the sweet scent of blooming jasmine, she glanced up the oak-lined street to her rural hometown’s only claim to a skyline. The gilding on the clock tower of the courthouse gleamed in the bright May sun.
Built shortly after the Civil War, the steepled courthouse was too small and dark to be effective for anything except record keeping, but they still used it for all their criminal proceedings. Not that a place this size had much more than a few drunk-and- disorderlies.
Given her father’s rowdy habits, Rory had been on the inside of the courthouse a few more times than she cared to recall—one of the many reasons the town’s substantial citizens ignored her.
Walking beneath live oaks trailing gray beards of Spanish moss, she studied the high-pitched roof of the city landmark, easily locating what appeared to be a half-naked Greek god perched at the peak, tampering with the clock’s internal mechanism. It looked to her like it would be easier to tackle the job from inside the tower, but who was she to argue with mechanical genius? Or Greek gods? His shoulders alone were awe-inspiring.
The clock never had run properly, not since the mayor’s daddy “fixed” it back during World War II, according to town legend. She kind of liked the fact that the clock always ran slow no matter how many times someone set it. It seemed to depict the town’s cautious attitude of living one step behind the times.
If McCloud looked as good up close as he did from down here, she’d be willing to climb up there and join him.
Obviously a victim of her sexless life, Rory shook her head at her voyeurism. She had enough complications in her life without adding a man to it. Someday her prince might come, but in the meantime she was perfectly happy building her own castles.
Emerging from the shade to stand on the courthouse lawn, she called up to him. “Thomas McCloud?” She wondered if her voice would carry that far. Climbing the ladder leaning against the side of the building wasn’t on her agenda for the morning.
Rory couldn’t tell whether it was her voice that caused him to halt what he was doing or if he’d just decided to take a drink. Either way, he slipped his screwdriver into a tool belt, picked up a bottle of water, and glanced downward through his expensive wraparound sunglasses.
Calling his name again, she waved at him to catch his attention.
From her view on the ground, Thomas McCloud could have doubled as a movie star—sun-bleached hair, slim hips, taut, tanned abdomen, and admirable pecs. And all attitude, she’d just about swear, waiting for the movie-star illusion to dispel the instant McCloud opened his mouth.
Shoving the aviator glasses into his thick, wavy hair, he lifted the water bottle in a salute, took a drink, set the bottle down on a ledge, and pulled his screwdriver out of his tool belt, completely ignoring her. Attitude. She’d known it. The good-looking ones were born with it.
“Thomas McCloud, I need to talk with you!” she shouted at
He carefully unscrewed one corner of the clock frame and
dropped the screws into a pouch on his belt without once looking down.
She damned well didn’t intend to stand here screaming like a jay, making a spectacle of herself. The townspeople already thought little enough of her family without confirming their “trailer trash” reputation.
Rory marched around the courthouse and up the steps. She’d been the one who’d taught her classmates how to climb up into the tower.
She supposed a sensible person would have gone on to the next order of business and hoped to catch one Thomas Clayton McCloud in another time and place. But life had taught her that the timid got walked over and the stubborn got things done.
Besides, he’d ticked her off by ignoring her. She wouldn’t have accomplished as much as she had if she’d let people ignore her.
“How you doing, Elena?” Leaning on the counter in the DMV office, Rory greeted the file clerk who’d worked there for decades.
Sliding her purple-rimmed glasses on top of her gray hair, the clerk smiled a greeting. “Aurora, how good to see you!”
Rory waved her hand at the door partially hidden behind a bank of file cabinets. “I need to climb up there and talk to the clown on the roof. Is the staircase accessible these days?”
“He’s a sight to behold, isn’t he? If only I were thirty years younger.” Elena reached behind an antique wooden file cabinet and removed a key from a hook.
“I thought it was only the high school kids who sought attention by climbing up there.” Rory accepted the key and started around the counter.
“He never talks to anyone, so I guess it’s not attention he’s after.” She tucked a pencil into the bun of hair at her nape and grabbed a shrilly ringing phone, waving Rory on.
Clasping the key in her fist, Rory wended her way past desks and cabinets and assorted equipment to pry open the squeaking door. She wrinkled her nose at the musty stench emanating from the wooden structure. If the town ever hired a real live fire marshal who actually inspected buildings, he’d probably condemn this stairway. Until then, she needed a broom to clear out the cobwebs.
Checking a nearby janitor’s closet and finding a worn broom, Rory thanked the good Lord for people who never changed their habits. She could swear this was the same broom she’d used the first time she’d sneaked up the stairs. Wielding the handle, she brushed aside cobwebs and cleared a path.
The old staircase seemed safe enough. With her sensible heels slapping the wooden treads so he could hear her coming, Rory climbed to the third story landing and located the vent overlooking the roof.
“McCloud!” she called, rattling the louver until it opened enough for her to see out. “I need to talk with you. You want to do it here or somewhere more appropriate?”
The clock tower was actually overhead, perched on the peak of the roof, so she had to look up as well as out to see the mechanic. Mostly, she could see his long, jeans-clad legs. Apparently amused by her call, he peered over his sunglasses at the open louvers, but she figured he couldn’t see her.
“There’s a ladder in here,” she shouted. “I can climb up there if I have to.”
“I like a woman with perseverance. Give me a minute to screw down this frame. I’ll meet you down at the Monkey.”
He didn’t possess the honeyed drawl of a local man, but he had a deep, sexy voice that crawled right down inside her and made itself at home. Rory shivered in appreciation, then rolled her eyes.
He hadn’t even asked why she wanted to talk with him. Men! He probably thought his body was all she was after. Rory watched to be certain he was fastening the frame, then trudged down the way she’d come.
The Blue Monkey was her father’s favorite hangout, but it also served short-order meals and didn’t mind serving sailors who dragged in from the harbor covered in grease. It would be air- conditioned and not too busy at this hour, so she couldn’t argue with his choice of meeting places.
Rory didn’t recognize the young bartender, so she was safe in ordering a soft drink without a recitation of where she’d been and what she’d been doing since high school. She sighed at the ever- present contest slogan on the label of the bottle he slid across the bar to her, but she checked under the cap, just in case. Her father’s penchant for playing contests had started rubbing off on her since she’d returned home. Something about placing her hopes in the hands of fate appealed when she had no other options.
Flinging the Sorry, try again cap to the bar, she turned to study the jukebox. The playlist hadn’t changed since Elvis had checked out. She punched in a Simon and Garfunkel song from the seventies and took her glass and bottle to the first booth.
“Bridge over Troubled Water” hit its last wailing note as Thomas Clayton McCloud sauntered in. He’d apparently taken time to scrub off in a rest room, wetting his long, sun-streaked hair. He wore the ash brown length tied back with a leather thong against his bronzed nape. He’d donned a plaid cotton shirt to cover his bare chest, but with the sleeves ripped off, it didn’t do much to disguise his sculpted biceps.
Rory had to bite her tongue to prevent drooling as he slid into
the booth across from her, exuding male pheromones. Brains won over brawn any day in her book, but that didn’t stop her from appreciating the view when he crossed his sinewy arms on the table. This was the town’s computer expert?
He lifted his sunglasses, sliding them into his overlong hair. Up close, Rory could see that it had an unruly curl to the ends. The sunglasses had partially concealed a broad nose with a slight downward slope instead of the classically handsome one she’d expected. He wasn’t Hollywood pretty, but his long-lashed gray eyes could ring her chimes any day.
“There’d better be a good reason for dragging me down here this early in the day.” With a gesture at the bartender, he ordered a beer. The boy knew his brand of choice without asking and carried the bottle over still sweating from the cooler.
Sipping the beer, Clay admired the glory of the fullfigured redhead across from him—his fantasy Viking princess sprung to life in Technicolor. She’d twisted strands of her strawberry-blond mane into a knot at the back of her head, but it was too heavy to stay in the pins. One escaped lock curved in a delicate line along her throat, just brushing her red silk shirt. The stiff-collared, no- nonsense shirt didn’t bother him, but the gray business suit she wore with it warned he really didn’t want to hear what she had to say. He didn’t listen to suits these days.
Leaning back against the wooden bench, he took a good chug of beer and waited for her to get past his rudeness. No sense in encouraging whatever maggot had stuck in her craw. Instead, he engaged his mind in admiring the way her luscious lips tightened into a disapproving line.
“I’m Aurora Jenkins,” she said with only a hint of the soft drawl of the island inhabitants. “Terry Talbert has put me in charge of developing a budget for the park grant. I have an MBA in finance and grew up here, so I volunteered to help him out for a while.”
Raising an eyebrow, Clay continued sipping his beer, waiting for her to come around to what she really wanted.
In the dim light of the bar, her eyes appeared almost violet. They narrowed at his nonresponse.
“I’m developing a budget for the land-planning grant,” she continued without voicing an iota of frustration at his stonewalling. “I understand you’re overseeing the software development of a program capable of identifying and locating the Bingham heirs. If you haven’t pulled your cost figures together yet, I can help you with them.”
Clay nearly snorted beer out of his nose. Wiping the smirk off his face with the back of his hand, he leaned forward, bringing them face-to-face across the narrow table. “I do software. I don’t do numbers.”
“The state requires numbers, Mr. McCloud.”
“The state can go screw itself. I’m working for next to nothing and nothing is what they’ll get if they don’t leave me alone.” “With that attitude, maybe nothing is all you have and all you ever will have, Mr. McCloud. Perhaps I should suggest that the state find a different person to locate the heirs?”
“In my experience, you may suggest to them that the moon is blue, and they’ll appoint a committee to study the matter and make a decision sometime in the next century. Don’t let me stop you.” Flinging a bill on the table, Clay slid out of the booth.
It was a damned shame that great body was wasted on a narrow-minded number cruncher, but he was sticking to simple minds and simple tastes these days—even if Aurora Jenkins’ curves could tempt Satan.
“The park is imperative to our future, Mr. McCloud. We need a budget to get the state grant. I’ll present you with a suggested budget for your division next week,” she called after him.
He almost laughed out loud at that. He should have known any woman willing to tackle that spider-infested tower wouldn’t give up easily. Turning, he winked at her in his best obnoxious manner. “You’d be better off hunting for the late mayor’s missing fortune than to trust the state.”
He walked out, letting the door slam behind him.
Missing fortune, her foot and eye. If she could find a fortune, she’d be out of here so fast, his head would spin.
Cursing, Rory fumbled in her purse for some change so she could pay up and leave.
Where the hell did he get that my-way-or-the-highway attitude? Was he born with it? Did someone teach it to him?
Could she hit him over the head with a two-by-four and bash it out of him? There was a reason she preferred the pinstripe-suit crowd these days. She could control her temper better in the secure environment of intelligent people who shared rational goals.
“Clay took care of it,” the bartender said, sweeping the bill off the table before she found her change purse.
“Put the money against his tab.” Refusing to take anything from the bastard, Rory threw a couple of ones on the table.
She’d have to investigate Thomas Clayton McCloud more thoroughly before she approached him next time. Did he have any business background at all? Did he even have an education? How much did he actually know about programming? It was a real stretch to believe he could find the on switch of a PC.
She bet he found the on switch of every woman who crossed his path. Fanning herself with a file folder as she left the bar, Rory tried to ignore all the hormones exploding like little bombshells in less noble parts of her.
McCloud exuded sex appeal like bees secreted honey. She didn’t have the time or the patience to play little boy games. He could go exude on some other hapless female.